October 1, 1999 Volume 7, Number 3


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  • Canadian Light Source: Synchrotron fits U of S’s tradition of physics work

  • Biochem prof. pursues molecule-sized chips

  • Synchrotron fits U of S’s tradition of physics work

    By Kathryn Warden

    Kathryn Warden

    Why in Saskatoon? That’s a question that often gets asked across the country when people first hear about the $173.5-million Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron project.

    What many people don’t realize is that the U of S was a centre of accelerator expertise long before the decision was made last spring to go ahead with this first-in-Canada national facility.

    Indeed, U of S expertise in particle physics spans almost half a century dating back to Canada’s first cobalt-60 unit for treating cancer, which was developed by U of S scientists Sylvia Fedoruk and Harold Johns.

    Canada’s first betatron – another kind of electron accelerator used for both cancer treatment and sub-atomic physics research – was developed here in the late ’50s.

    In 1963, U of S physics professor Leon Katz built a linear accelerator (dubbed a ‘linac’) that was to become a training ground for some of the leading physicists associated with the CLS such as Dennis Skopik and Jack Bergstrom. The linac was one of fewer than a dozen such accelerators in the world. (It was fitting that Katz, now 90 and a professor emeritus, was given the honor of unveiling the new CLS site sign this week.)

    The U of S soon became a major player nationally and internationally in sub-atomic physics. In the early ’80s, Katz and Roger Servranckx came up with the idea for EROS (Electron Ring Of Saskatchewan), an electron storage ring that could stretch electron pulses from the linac so there’d be a continuous electron stream. Suddenly an electron beam was much more useful for sub-atomic physics experiments.

    Funded in 1983, EROS was the highest energy electron machine of its kind in the world. It opened the door to a whole new era of experiments.

    "On December 19, 1986, we turned the machine on for the first time and it actually worked," recalls Bergstrom, who is now a technical advisor on the CLS construction.

    Researchers from more than 30 outside organizations – universities, government agencies and companies – came to use the celebrated U of S machine. "The world beat a path to our door," says Bergstrom.

    But this "baby synchrotron" fell victim to federal budget cutbacks. Staff at the Saskatchewan Accelerator Laboratory (SAL) got the hard news on March 29th of this year that there’d be no more funding for EROS.

    "In principle this was the end of the line for SAL," says Bergstrom. "But two days later we learned that the CLS was funded. Talk about a phoenix rising from the ashes!"

    The legacy of EROS was that U of S physicists not only had the technical expertise to design, build and operate a synchrotron, but they had also gained experienced in running a facility geared to a broad base of far-flung corporate and academic users.

    Though the word "synchrotron" is still new to many Canadians, a small group of scientists has been calling for a Canadian synchrotron since the mid-70s. In 1974, the University of Western Ontario (UWO) proposed to Ottawa that a Canadian synchrotron be built. That initiative was led by Michael Bancroft, now CLS Interim Director. The scientist who came up with the preliminary design was Servranckx from the U of S.

    The rest, as they say, is history.

    Skopik, now a CLS board member, says that for Canada not to have a synchrotron as it heads into the 21st century would have been akin to university labs not having microscopes back at the start of the 20th century.

    "This is an essential part of Canada’s future scientific infrastructure for many different academic disciplines and industries," he said.

    "It will enhance the reputation of the university, but it should also enhance the university financially with all the applied discoveries that will be marketed."

    – Michael Bancroft

    For Bancroft, the launch of the CLS is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream.

    "It’s a great thrill to be working with the kind of talented people we have here now and those that we are going to be hiring," says Bancroft, who uses synchrotron light to make better anti-wear films for vehicle engines.

    He says the synchrotron will enable the U of S to hire a lot of very talented people that it probably wouldn’t attract otherwise.

    "What comes out of this lab should enhance the whole university," he says.

    "It will enhance the reputation of the university, but it should also enhance the university financially with all the applied discoveries that will be marketed."

    Former U of S president George Ivany did "a fantastic job to shepherd this project through the university, the city and the province," he says, adding "In my estimation, it could not have happened anywhere else in Canada."


    Biochem prof. pursues molecule-sized chips

    By Karen Smith

    Smaller, faster, and more efficient. These buzzwords are pushing the development of new technologies such as computer chip design.

    "There’s a big push to make computer chips smaller," says Prof. Jeremy Lee of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Saskatchewan’s College of Medicine.

    "The smaller you make the chips, the smaller you can make the computer. But the problem with making things smaller is that you need a small machine to assemble a really small computer chip."

    With his leading-edge research, Lee hopes to bring assembly down to the size of a DNA molecule. He and colleague Dr. Palok Aich have found a way to put conducting metal ions such as zinc, cobalt, or nickel into the center of the DNA helix.

    This new molecule called M-DNA could lead to the development of microscopic computer chips and replace even the smallest of silicon chips used in today’s electronics.

    Lee and Aich have inserted conducting ions in-between the base pairs of a DNA molecule to form the electrically conductive M-DNA. Currently in the patent process, their M-DNA is capable of carrying an electric current in the same way that a wire is capable of supplying electricity to your home.

    "M-DNA is the smallest wire that you can imagine because it’s only one molecule thick," says Lee. "And the beauty of DNA is that it self-assembles. You don’t need a machine to put it together. It can make itself. You throw the sequences together and the base pairs automatically match up."

    Lee says M-DNA was discovered completely by accident.

    "We were studying another form of DNA when something very odd happened and we got M-DNA. This is one example of why curiosity-driven research is so important. You never know where it might lead."

    Future access to the proposed Canadian Light Source synchrotron at the U of S would provide details of the exact structure of M-DNA, which would go a long way to explain its unique properties.

    Another potential application for M-DNA is in testing for drugs such as anti-tumor agents or environmental toxins that target and bind to DNA. Anything that binds to DNA will block the electrical signal of M-DNA. Again, these drug detection studies can be carried out on a very small, molecular scale.

    M-DNA could also be a valuable tool in testing for genetic diseases. When a genetic disease is present, the gene sequence is altered. In attempting to convert a sample into M-DNA, the absence of an electrical signal would indicate that M-DNA has not formed and that a genetic disease is present.

    Confident that a technique using M-DNA in the screening of genetic diseases could be developed within a year, U of S Technologies Inc. (UST) and the Canadian Genetic Diseases Network (CGDN) have signed an agreement to help commercialize the M-DNA research.

    Lee has a $21,000 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) grant and a $100,000 Medical Research Council (MRC) grant.

    "In 1993, when I first discovered M-DNA, the scientific community was skeptical," says Lee. "But now that it’s proven that M-DNA really does conduct, I’m being asked to give presentations at biotechnology firms in Canada and the United States."

    Dr. Jeremy Lee in his U of S laboratory.


    On Campus News is published by the Office of Communications, University of Saskatchewan.
    For further information, visit the web site or contact communications@usask.ca

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